The fallout spreading from the coronavirus is putting pressure on businesses to evaluate sick leave policies and break out their remote work and potential office closure plans — steps that many companies in a hurricane-prone state stand ready to implement at any time.
The pressure intensified Friday on businesses employing working parents after the announcement that Louisiana is shuttering K-12 schools until April 13. While the order does not apply to them, private schools might decide to close as well, officials said.
Schools are closing. Gatherings of more than 250 people are banned. The presidential primary election is delayed for two months.
The executive order does not apply to the state’s roughly 1,700 early learning centers, which serve children from birth through pre-kindergarten, providing working parents with younger children and the businesses who employ them some relief.
Some businesses are preparing to make accommodations and are following contingency plans they’ve used for hurricanes and floods that caused extensive, lengthy power outages or property damage that displaced workers and are now adapting those to the global coronavirus outbreak that hit parts of Louisiana this week.
“We have to be able to work from everywhere as part of our disaster recovery, and we’ve been running those tests pretty consistently,” said James DuBos, chief executive officer of Transformyx.
“We went through the 2016 (flood) and it’s a different type of event, but we learned a lot of lessons,” he said of a natural disaster that impacted 15% of the company’s workforce.
Taking care of employees, who then in turn are able to focus on taking care of customers, is one key lesson, he said.
Most Transformyx employees already have the capability to work remotely.
For employees who may be facing childcare burdens as a result of school closures, the company is creating a directory of those who may need help and plans to connect them with resources.
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“We have some employees who have children with disabilities or those who need 24-hour care or aging grandparents in the home with them — there are a lot of scenarios of how people may be impacted,” DuBos said.
Other employers are taking into account similar considerations. They also are looking at how cross-trained employees can fill in for each other as needed, and in the case of big petrochemical plants who might be willing to stay on-site long term to avoid disruptions in operations.
In light of the coronavirus pandemic, Transformyx, which has fewer than 100 employees, developed a series of formal COVID-19 policies after consulting with health care providers. The company doesn’t expect to have any disruption of service for customers and may have to increase workloads to support K-12 schools it has contracts with providing technology services.
“Even without the students being present, administrative teams need support. We’re also trying to help school districts who need remote educational communication capabilities,” DuBos said, because some schools it serves might elect to have online classes.
Baton Rouge-based Investar Bank, which has nearly 30 bank branches across south Louisiana and into Texas and Alabama, is already implementing a pandemic disaster plan.
“Throughout the years of testing the plan both in hypothetical and actual disasters, we have learned how to better position resources albeit remote or otherwise to continue delivering service to our customers effectively,” John J. D’Angelo, CEO of Investar Bank, said in an email.
The bank expects to see an uptick of business clients who are trying to navigate periods of low cash flow if their business drops off.
The bank has about 285 employees, the majority of whom work in Louisiana. It has identified internally which employees may be impacted by K-12 school closures and reached out to help.
“We will work with our parents and key staff to ensure that those who can work will have what they need and where they need it in order to provide continuity of service,” D’Angelo said. “We have great teams at the bank with very skilled employees who are cross-trained to help support each other when needed.”
If an employee at the bank were to contract COVID-19, the employee would be quarantined as well as any individuals who came into close contact with the individual.
“The location of an infected employee would potentially close until it can be verified as safe to conduct business again,” he said.
Rachael Higginbotham, a spokeswoman for Postlethwaite & Netterville, said the Baton Rouge accounting firm has a longstanding practice of using technology and processes to support remote work, but the business is prepared to widen work-from-home procedures if necessary. It also has offices in New Orleans, Metairie, Lafayette, Gonzales, St. Francisville, Donaldsonville and Houston.
“All of our team members have laptop computers, and we use cloud-based software, virtual communication tools, and electronic data storage as standard practices,” Higginbotham said. “Across the firm, we feel confident in our ability to continue to work during this time.”
Likewise, the Lumpkin Agency which sells group and individual insurance benefits among its services, isn’t closing its office, even temporarily.
“We need to be readily available to our clients in case they have questions involving their insurance plans,” said Courtney Waters, spokeswoman for Lumpkin Agency.
The company is reducing any in-person meetings and doing more work remotely. Employees are encouraged to self-isolate if they feel ill, whether they are able to be tested for coronavirus or not.
Human Resources consultant and marketing business owner Mary Ellen Slayter has been offering advice to clients remotely as she herself is self-isolating due to travel and potential exposure.
“Start thinking about this not as something to hurry up and get through, but how this could make your business more resilient,” Slayter said. “Everybody going home right now should assume they won’t be coming back (physically) to the office for a month.”
It’s also a good time to assess how valuable a company is when it can’t meet with clients face-to-face at conferences or meetings.
“You could host a virtual event,” she said.
Her advice for bigger companies with small business contractors? Be generous about up-front deposits for future work and prompt invoicing as cash flow may get tight.
“This is going to be a rough year but we can work together in the business community and take care of each other,” she said. “I made it through 9/11 in Washington, D.C., but I think that this is going to be more disruptive than that was.”
In the petrochemical industry, companies are implementing emergency pandemic plans, said Jim Harris, a media consultant who spoke with five different facilities across Louisiana.
“The recent escalation in the number of coronavirus cases in Louisiana has resulted in facilities stepping up preparations to deal with the situation,” Harris said. They are setting up systems to send non-essential personnel home if and when that becomes necessary.”
There is a difference between hurricane preparedness plans and those for pandemics, which are more complex and may deal with long-term impacts to operations rather than one-time events.
In some ways it’s similar.
“Like hurricane preparations, they are all considering what is known in the industry as “ride-out” plans, where essential personnel would volunteer to stay on-site for a long period of time to maintain operations,” he said.
Some smaller facilities may have to idle operations temporarily as part of the response.
At ExxonMobil’s Baton Rouge facility, the company already has an infectious disease outbreak plan.
“Our focus right now is on ensuring the safety and health of our entire workforce and to do our part to limit the spread of the novel coronavirus in the community,” said Rory Denicola, spokesman for ExxonMobil.
ExxonMobil already has a 14-day work-from-home policy for any employees who traveled internationally or spent time in communities where there has been organic spread of the virus.
To support workers while schools are closed, the company already has a back-up care program, which offers temporary care options for family members of employees when primary care breaks down or is unavailable.
Boyer Derise, owner of Good Eats Kitchen, said the is weighing numerous options on how to deal with the pandemic. The company has four locations, one in Lafayette and three in Baton Rouge, and he said customers using its website to order meals for pickup and delivery may allow them to weather the storm.
“Right now, we want to focus on being able to get good food to people who can’t come to us,” Derise said. “If they start closing schools and people are forced to stay home, then it becomes a real challenge to the community ….”
Business disruption precautions were outlined Friday by the Baton Rouge Area Chamber, which also said it is setting up an online survey to see how businesses are responding to the spread of the disease and evaluate the impact of the pandemic on the regional economy. The business survey is at www.brac.org/recovery and a link has been posted on the organization’s Facebook page. A link of the best business preparation guidance from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce also is posted there.
“We’re making sure that we’re aggregating a lot of the guidance we’re getting in a single location,” said Adam Knapp, president and chief executive officer of BRAC, who said the business guidance came about while he was meeting with his staff this week, trying to prepare for all eventualities from the coronavirus pandemic.
The chamber also noted that the U.S. Small Business Administration will make targeted, low-interest disaster loans to small businesses and nonprofits severely impacted by the coronavirus outbreak. The Economic Injury Disaster Loan program can provide working capital loans of up to $2 million. Information can be found at https://www.sba.gov/disaster-assistance/coronavirus-covid-19.
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